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Preparedness, Hostages, and Hurricanes
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 09/06/2010

Evacuation route sign There are two stories in the news right now that should give all corrections professionals and public safety personnel cause to ponder safety lessons. The hostage incident in Maryland’s Discovery Channel Building and the imminent North American debut of Hurricane Earl should implore us to review our disaster preparedness plans. Our written operating procedures for emergencies are those that we never wish to use, but gratefully execute when necessary.

On the face of it, a hostage situation and a looming hurricane are in no way alike. One is an unexpected human-driven drama that may possibly prove to contain stranger details now that the hostage situation is over. The other is a natural phenomenon that we are really only able to evacuate from as we track it meteorologically.

If we pull back from the details a bit, however, we see that the differences melt a bit. Both are instances in which life could be lost. In mitigating the harm, we use planning, act on past examples, and react on unpredicted circumstances. In short, these are examples of how we can mitigate the sting of events, foreseen or otherwise.

In the case of the hostage situation, we saw many agencies work in concert. Tactical teams moved to where they needed to be. This was done well because of the thorough planning, extensive training and flawless execution. We are hopeful that the same will be true of those who flee from Hurricane Earl. And thought time will tell on for that, it is of some relief that evacuation plans have already been put into action. And while the film of people boarding up ocean front properties may seem all too familiar for the late summer season, it offers some hope in the face of disaster. So many aftermath effects have been lessened by preparedness.

We in corrections know this. Every day on the job has the potential for violence, hostage taking, and even death behind the walls. And our fences and vigilance do not make us impervious to natural disasters of any kind. Like those in Maryland and on the Atlantic Coast, Our planning, training, and implementation are factors that keep staff, offenders, and the public safer.

During crisis events, opportunities will arise that we cannot foresee. We cannot discount that something unexpected will happen during a critical incident. For example, according to a news agency, a journalist called the main telephone number of the Discovery Channel Building while the hostage situation was in progress. The captor actually answered that telephone. The journalist was advised by law enforcement to keep the captor talking. Taking that opportunity may have slowed down the potential carnage. Also, the hostage incident was ended when a law enforcement agent saw the hostage taker raise a weapon to a victim. The agent fired to stop the captor. In short, one has to be ever aware that windows of opportunity can suddenly open. Flexibility combined with thorough training and planning can create better results in a tragic scenario.

In corrections, it behooves us to think in dire hypothetical terms. As a matter of course, we scan the room each time we enter. We look for the ordinary and note when things appear out of place. We track colleagues in order to account for their safety. And we are ever mindful of all routes and hiding places. And just as an enterprising offender takes opportunities and advantages, so, too, do we.

Sometimes, little parts of the whole illustrate a good lesson. A small but significant part of the Discovery Channel hostage story was evocative. During the morning news, I saw footage of staff pushing small cribs on the sidewalk. Each of these cribs had a small child inside. To my right, I heard my wife speak two words that I had never heard together. Those words were “evacuation cribs”. She is an early childhood education specialist. I realized that her vocation seeped into our news viewing.

She informed me that evacuation cribs are not meant to be slept in. They are designed for the safe transport of toddlers and infants in case of a fire or some other tragedy. And not any crib can suffice; as most standard cribs will not fit easily though door openings. Thus, the evacuation cribs are designed to be narrow. I could not help raising an impressed eyebrow to the simple, yet ingenious concept. Planning and design have saved many over the years.

Thanks to staff in all agencies involved in ending the hostage taking in Maryland. Some 1,900 people left the building safely. Gratitude is also deserved for those in the building. Their cool-headedness and teamwork contributed to the success. And good luck to those who are weathering Hurricane Earl.

Additional thanks go out to those who created and trained for the disaster plans. Most people don’t really want to think about disasters. Thankfully, teams are assembled to write plans and assemble training for when things truly go wrong. And while heroic action during the crises is important, the foundation laid by the planners also helps to save the day.

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  2. booch on 09/04/2010:

    Dear Joe, Thanks for the updates and your feedback with these issues. I am a member in training who would like to thank our leadership for their efforts in creating and training our officers and staff on our disaster plans and exercises to ensure proficient actions are exercised in peacetime. The general population working in our environments don’t really think about being taken hostage or any other disaster that could arise. The State of Delaware and the Department of Corrections have done a great job writing plans,and providing funding to allow us the training time we need to prepare and engage for when things truly go wrong. The actions of our professional teams seem to go unnoticied by many and a fight for the funding is an effort that we as trained responders appreciate! Thanks Again!

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